Confessions of a Secret Boatbuilder

When not getting his hands dirty in the soil, the Bay Gardener keeps busy restoring old boats and making new ones

Wife Clara claims that my desire to build and restore boats can be traced to Viking genes in my blood. I remind her I am of French Canadian descent with Algonquin heritage. Her rebuttal is that Vikings invaded northern Europe where my French ancestors lived.

 
In the 20 years we’ve lived on Rockhold Creek in Deale, I have built two boats, with a third under way, and restored two more — plus a 1949 John Deere B tractor and, now, a 1939 Allis Chalmers B tractor. Clara is still trying to explain my interest in antique tractors.
 
My interest in building and fixing things is easy to trace. Dad never spent a dime buying my brother Maurice and me toys, but he believed in buying us tools. He also taught us how to work with our hands as well as with our heads, for which I am forever grateful. When Maurice and I expressed interest in archery, Dad didn’t buy us bows and arrows. He gave each of us one-by-two pieces of clear maple for building bows and dowels for making arrows. We borrowed a friend’s bow as the model from which we designed and made our own.
 

Boat One

Maurice and I built our first boat together when he was 15 and I was 12, after reading a Boys’ Life article — with design and construction details — on building a 14-foot, orange-crate canoe. Dad bought us lumber for gunnels, keel and other solid wood components. Maurice and I visited local grocery stores with our red wagon to collect wire-bound produce crates. We disassembled them carefully; the wood of the crates was less than one-eighth-inch thick and split easily. With Dad’s guidance, we built the construction frame from scrap wood, upon which we laid the keel, gunnel and lower rib. 
 
The canoe took shape as we nailed the salvaged crate lumber into place with brass brads. After the frame was built, at Dad’s insistence we hand-sanded all edges and rough surfaces. Then we stretched untreated canvas over the shell of the V-shaped hull. I remember sitting on the cement floor of our garage and pulling the canvas down with all my weight, while my brother nailed the canvas to the gunnels through wooden lattice. He would often holler pull harder! so he could get the wrinkles out. I pulled so hard my butt lifted off the floor.
 
After applying the canvas, we moved the canoe outdoors to treat it with airplane dope. When that dried, we painted the hull navy blue, the inside red and the gunnels white.
It was not an easy project for two kids, but with Dad’s support and encouragement we built a canoe that we were proud of.
 
We canoed the lakes and ponds of New Hampshire and fished from our canoe. I once gave Vincent Price a ride in the bow of that canoe. Mother ran a boarding house that took in staff and actors from the nearby Lakes Region Summer Theater. Vincent Price had requested to stay with a local family during his performance. Arriving from California, tired and wanting to relax, he asked if he could come along for a canoe ride while I fished. He was great company.
 

Boat Two

My second boat, a wooden-strip canoe, was inspired by my visit to the Old Town Canoe factory in Old Town, Maine. In the basement, three elderly gentlemen were building a couple of original Old Town wooden canoes, boats that sold for more than $3,000 each. Even so, there was a three-year waiting list. After watching them practice their craft and seeing a finished canoe awaiting delivery, I couldn’t wait to build my own.
 
I purchased blueprints and a video on building a 16-foot canoe of white cedar and mahogany strips. Then I got to work. First, I restored a used canoe mold. I ordered the cedar lumber and sawed it into quarter-inch-thick strips. Planed so as to fit tightly, each strip was glued and stapled into place on the outside of the mold. After I sanded the shell smooth, I coated it with fiberglass. My excitement grew as I fitted the oak and mahogany trim and applied the finish coats
of varnish.
 
More than 300 hours went into that 72-pound canoe before Clara and I launched it from our dock and paddled down Rockhold Creek. Many boaters complimented us on the boat, which they recognized as handmade. The best compliment came shortly after passing under the bridge at Happy Harbor. A boater spotted us, rushed into the cabin of his cruiser and emerged holding a small, hand-carved canoe, a close replica to my own, which this total stranger gave me as a gift.
 

Boat Three

Completing and launching the canoe gave me the urge to build a dinghy that we could tow behind the 24-foot, wing-keel, MacGregor sailboat I spent many months restoring.
 
Building the dinghy was a new experience because it meant learning how to do lap-streak planking and how to scarf planks for added strength. I built the hull from marine plywood and covered it with fiberglass for additional strength. I also had to build a mast, yardarm, boom, rudder, dagger board, belay pin and oars. Each was a new challenge. My only teacher was a set of blueprints and a paperback on shell-back dinghies.
 
But I needed Clara’s assistance with the sails. My sewing skills are minimal, but once she got me started, I was on my own.
 
The hull is painted white, the trim is red and the sail is blue, making it very patriotic. I have sailed the boat in the cove north of the Nutwell bridge on weekends, where I taught myself some sailing skills in preparation for launching the larger MacGregor.
 

Boat Four

Restoring the 24-foot MacGregor was a whole new experience.
 
After scraping a five-gallon pail full of barnacles from the hull, my next big project was to remove the swing keel from its storage compartment inside the hull. The fiberglass and wood housing covering the 500 pounds of lead and steel had disintegrated. Barnacles, grown inside the compartment, had to be removed with a long steel chisel and hammer. Laying on my back under the boat chiseling away, the thought of the 500-pound keel breaking loose above my head filled me with fear.
 
I built a new hinged rudder. Garry Williams of Osprey Marine Composites guided and assisted me as I rebuilt the keel to its original shape and dimensions, repairing all cracks and bruises on the hull and deck. I had never done more with fiberglass than applying one or two layers over the shell of the strip canoe or the shell-back dinghy. Here, I learned to do a lot more. Then Garry and I spent hours sanding the outside of the hull and deck until they were as smooth as silk.
I rewired the entire boat, concealing the wires in wooden molding, painting the interior and refinishing the original molding and hatches. The sailboat has been named the Happy Heron by my wife Clara.
 

Boat Five

Early in 2010, with snow on the ground, I started construction on a 17-foot strip sea kayak. This is a new challenge because it requires building a deck as well as a hull on the same mold, separating them from the mold to be finished inside and out, then fitting them back together after the mold is removed. I hope to complete this project this winter, when it is too cold for me to work on the restoration of my 1939 Allis Chalmers B tractor.
 
In the meantime, I will be cutting Christmas trees and making Christmas wreaths and roping during November and early December.
 
The Viking in me likes to keep busy.